07.07.11

Jock the Vote

What the presidential candidates talk about when they talk about sports.

“I like basketball,” Newt Gingrich remarked recently. I pumped my fist. I did the Mississippi Mud Walk. Finally, the race to crown the fakest sports fan in America had begun.

The presidential campaign puts candidates in a miserable position sports-wise. To say you don’t like sports would be more damning than admitting you’re a Kenyan anticolonialist. So Newt & Co. attempt—in ways that mix childhood longings with political exigency—to speak the language of ESPN. We sports fans flash a demonic Dick Butkus smile, because when the candidates talk sports, they reveal their true selves. To deploy a sportsism, we fans are dictating the tempo here, and we’ve got the candidates right where we want ’em. 
 
Mitt Romney is a phony who is also a phony sports fan. His sin is the geographical pander, which we might call Hillary’s Boner. The pander is when you’re caught with two “favorite” teams, one you grew up rooting for and another favored by your constituents. Romney was raised in the Detroit suburbs as an Al Kaline–worshiping Tigers fan. When he moved to Boston in the early 1970s, it became socially advantageous for him to root for the Red Sox. This despite the fact that, during Romney’s second year at Harvard, the Tigers and Sox finished a half-game apart at the top of the AL East. “I’m a Red Sox fan,” Romney likes to say now. With his baseball teams, as with his abortion policy, Romney surveyed a couple of contenders before finally settling on a winner.

Now Romney acts like a regular in Bill Simmons’s mailbag. He donned a Sox shirt during a July 4 parade in New Hampshire. He declared at his June campaign kickoff, “As the Red Sox like to remind the New York Yankees, there are no dynasties in America”—a weird statement, because this Sox squad probably qualifies as a dynasty and the son of George Romney definitely does. Is Romney a Red Sox “fan” as we understand it? He often brags that his family has season tickets at Fenway. But that doesn’t prove Romney is a fan; that proves Romney is rich. No, to see how closely Romney follows his favorite team, we go to St. Petersburg, Fla., on June 15. While the Republican frontrunner watched Josh Beckett throw a one-hitter, he marveled that the Rays were playing home games indoors. “I thought I was going to be in sweltering heat,” Romney said, “but instead it’s cool.” Tropicana Field has been hosting major-league games since 1998. The comment marked a watershed of sorts. Mitt Romney was an even phonier Red Sox fan than John Kerry.

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, doesn’t see sports as a way to make friends. He sees it as a way to grow a spine. The rap on Pawlenty is that he’s too “nice”—that he doesn’t want the GOP nomination enough. (Political pundits sizing up the candidates often sound like sportswriters sizing up athletes.) So in a January interview with AOL’s Politics Daily, Pawlenty said, “I’m pro-beer and pro-hockey.” He told Time that if he weren’t running for president, the alternative would be to “go make some money and play hockey and drink beer.”

Pawlenty clearly sees hockey (and beer) as linemates in his quest for machismo. “I love hockey,” he writes in his memoir Courage to Stand, echoing Newt Gingrich’s basketball jones. But Pawlenty’s fandom, like Romney’s, feels like an unscuffed baseball the umpire has just thrown into the game. In Courage to Stand, Pawlenty doesn’t wax particularly nostalgic about the NHL’s Minnesota Wild or the old North Stars or his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Instead he tells us that ... he’s a partial season-ticket holder of the Wild. The games are “completely engaging.”

Pawlenty then plants the toe of his skate and turns to hockey fights. Now there’s some machismo! Fights: the ritual of dropped gloves, broken noses, and “enforcers” (the quote marks are Pawlenty’s) that occur, in the candidate’s telling, when one goon asks another, “You wanna go?” Now Pawlenty never cops to having fought. That would be unpresidential and possibly actionable. But he has drawn some lessons from watching fights. “[I]f you’re the one getting pummeled, you ... don’t want to show your weakness,” Pawlenty writes. He knows he’s not the Gretzky of the 2012 GOP field, but he’s making a bid to be Tiger Williams. He’s trying to convince Americans he can say, “Hey, Mitt, you wanna go?”

Newt Gingrich is a classic brooding archetype: the failed athlete. He went out for football in high school, ran into the Nixonian talent wall (there were reports of an eye problem), and was notable mostly for the fact that the team had to go to the manufacturer to find a helmet that was big enough to fit his head. (This story is delightfully retold by Newt’s old coach, James “Bubba” Ball.) From the sidelines, Gingrich lashes out like the reject who can’t stand the letter-jacket handsome. “What we need is a president, not an athlete,” Gingrich snapped last April. There’s an ugly racial subtext here. You can’t imagine Gingrich saying, “What we need is a president, not a baseball owner.” 
 
But Newt has known a small bit of sports glory. In 2008 he wrote a New York Times op-ed with John Kerry and—surprise!—Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. The piece endorsed a sabermetrics-style plan to improve health care. But what really stood out was Gingrich’s glee in finally being chosen for the varsity. In a video, Gingrich praised Michael Lewis’s Moneyball (“a very funny and useful book”) and flashed his ideas-hungry grin. We sports fans have seen this look before. It’s the look of a sports illiterate who reads something (usually by Michael Lewis) and decides this ball-and-stick stuff maybe isn’t so bad. It may even have applications for the real world. When Gingrich discovers Nate Silver, his head is going to grow another helmet size.

Pawlenty’s fandom, like Romney’s, feels like an unscuffed baseball the umpire has just thrown into the game.

Rick Perry (not quite a candidate) is the only Republican to absorb sports fully into his being, his Texas Weltanschauung. Before he was a yell leader at Texas A&M (a role shared by W. at Andover), Perry was a quarterback on the high-school football team in Paint Creek, Texas. He is quick to note that there were only 13 kids in his graduating class, and the Pirates played the six-man version of the game. Indeed, when Perry talks about his football career, he uses it as a scene in a rural highlight reel. Living without running water till he was 6. Mom making his clothes. Going on his first date with his future wife, Anita, when he was on the bench with a broken arm—Perry had been trampled by a horse. In these Friday Night Lights tales, there are even echoes of the goofy-verging-on-ironic attitude Perry flashes whenever somebody suggests he’s presidential material. Perry was once clobbered in a game, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The Pirates gathered around, and Perry looked up and said, “How’s the crowd taking it?” 
 
Michele Bachmann’s career as a contrarian NFL fan lasted four weeks. Last October the Minnesota congresswoman was seen wearing a Randy Moss jersey. Moss, recently booted from New England to Minnesota, was in the process of staging a mutiny against the Vikings’ coach. Wearing his jersey was either an act of astonishing political courage or a mistake. Mistake won in a romp. (A few weeks later, photos of Bachmann in the Moss jersey vanished from her campaign ads.) To find Bachmann dabbling in sports these days, check out the booming business of Tea Party autographed baseballs, which you can buy in Bachmann and Herman Cain editions. You’ll notice, autograph hounds, that even long-shot candidate Gary Johnson thinks enough of himself to sign the “sweet spot.” 
 
And what about Barack Obama? Finally, we think, a genuine sports guy. The basketball scenes in Dreams From My Father feel organic and right, whether Obama is receiving a ball from his dad or talking about Malcolm X with the ball under one arm. But then we pass from the world of childhood to the political parable. In a Sports Illustrated profile, Obama recalled that a coach friend once used the word “n----r.” “It reminded me that race is complicated,” Obama told the magazine, “that people are complicated, that you could have ugly strains even among people who were otherwise decent ... It does not necessarily mean they're bad people.” 
 
Is that real? I believe the coach’s casual slur. It’s the Kareem-like Zen of Obama’s response that makes me suspicious. Indeed, how authentic you judge Obama’s sports fandom to be comes down to which vision of him you subscribe to. One view goes that Obama is a genuinely menschy, high-minded guy who ran into the Republicans’ zone defense. After Obama unveiled his March Madness picks on ESPN this year, GOP chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “How can @BarackObama say he is leading when he puts his NCAA bracket over the budget & other pressing issues?” Contrary to the birther slurs, Prince was arguing Obama was too American, whiling away time on basketball when he should have been working.  
 
The second view of Obama is that he’s a great speaker and self-promoter whose true nature was revealed when he became president. (Some conservatives think Obama turned out to be a socialist, while some liberals think Obama turned out to be a centrist.) It’s true that Obama has talked so much about sports, and in so many media-friendly ways, that you begin to see his fandom as a political strategy.

Witness Obama’s annual bracketology on ESPN. His one-on-one basketball game against Sports Illustrated writer S. L. Price. (“Obama was confident but not cocky, unselfish but unafraid to shoot,” Price wrote. “[H]e could talk trash without seeming mean, compete feverishly without seeming angry.” Has any player ever combined all these qualities?) There was Obama’s 2008 chat with Chris Berman, where he recalled a coach telling him, “Look, this is not about you; it’s about the team.” The “admission” that he and Robert Gibbs were eyeing fantasy stats before the third debate with John McCain. The war on college football’s Bowl Championship Series. The Heisman pose during the Texas primary. The catchphrase-perfect appearance on WWE RAW.

Obama’s enough of a sports dork that we wouldn’t call him a poseur. But his sports fandom, like every other part of his life, has become politicized. If you think of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidential runs as one long campaign to convince America he is not The Other, then sports is one of his most formidable weapons. Basketball stakes Obama’s claim to being American just like Red Sox seats help Romney’s Boston cred. Sports give Obama a toughness that Pawlenty so desperately seeks. And though the president’s organized-sports career didn’t last much longer than Gingrich’s or Perry’s, his shoot-arounds turn him into an athlete-politician in a way Perry or (dramatic understatement) Gingrich never will be. The most important thing about Obama’s fandom isn’t that it’s more authentic than his GOP rivals’ but that he has used it more effectively on us. He drains a jumper, and we cheer. To use another sportsism: the president’s got scoreboard.